Lord of the Wings plans expansion despite economic slowdown

Hamra saw the opening of the first Lord of the Wings franchise earlier this year.

BEIRUT: Having worked in the hospitality sector for years, Marc Moudabber, the founder of Lord of the Wings, recognizes the importance of creating a single-item specialityconcept. “We stand out because we do wings. People identify us first with wings, and we’re the only player in the market,” Moudabber says. “This is why we positioned our image, our brand in such a way.”

The restaurant began life in 2007, with a small venue in Gemmayzeh, but it is now expanding across the region, with the first branch outside of Lebanon set to open in Kuwait next month. Franchise rights have also been sold in Egypt, where Moudabber plans to open five outlets within the same amount of years.

While the restaurant serves much else besides wings, Moudabber firmly believes it is this aspect which has made the brand so successful, as, he says, “Specialization is the name of the game.”

The Gemmayzeh branch, and the City Mall one which followed soon after, were “testing grounds” for the concept, he says, and when they proved successful, he and his brother began developing the business model.

This summer, the first franchise was opened in Hamra, which Moudabber is excited about as he describes the neighborhood as an “interesting market. There you have people from all sorts of walks of life.” On top of that, he adds, since Hamra is marketed on the international arena, “anyone who comes to visit Lebanon has to visit Hamra.”

The franchise is owned by Bassem Jarrar, who returned to Lebanon in 2000 from the U.S., where he had run nightclubs in the 1970s and 1980s, and coffee shops in the 1990s. He was attracted to the idea of Lord of the Wings after meeting Moudabber.

“When I saw what he was doing, I just got sold on the idea. He goes for the best quality, he’s very demanding: from cooking style, price, preparation, sauces and portion sizes.”

The response so far has been very positive, Jarrar says, even though they have yet to do any real promotion.

“People are genuinely enjoying what they’re eating, and every other person who walks in says they’re glad we’re in Hamra, as before they had to go to Gemmayzeh or City Mall.”

Jarrar says that he didn’t just open the restaurant, above which he has also opened a bar called 9:30, just for business, but also to “to be involved in the society, to be involved in Hamra, to hire people and to have clientele.”

The restaurant, which is attached to the bar by an impressive glass-fronted staircase, has also served as a place for him to display some of his collected art pieces, and there will soon be projected video installations viewable from the street level.

Setting up a business in his native Lebanon has been much harder than in the U.S., where even if there was more bureaucracy to deal with, it was easier to plough through, and systems work.

“In the U.S. it’s 1,2,3,4 – they might be very difficult, or very demanding steps, but here it’s just a maze.”

In a very bad year for Lebanon financially, and with the tourist and hospitality sectors suffering, the obvious question is what prompted Jarrar to open up a business.

In Lebanon, he says, “we accept leadership the way it is, we accept income the way it is, we accept development the way it is. We’re accepting of whatever. But I can’t. Life, community, society, personally I have to move on.”

Creating the best experience for customers is of great importance to Jarrar, but what motivates him is the staff.

“The most important thing is the people who are working here. I have to think every morning and every evening that this is their livelihood. If a staff member is happy and his livelihood is good, he’s going to act and be more giving ... it’s a circle.”

With tourism revenues down nearly 80 percent this year, Moudabber admits that he is worried about the financial situation in Lebanon, but says he is encouraged by the situation of the United Arab Emirates, where even when the real estate sector has taken a hit, the hospitality industry has remained buoyant.

However, Moudabber expresses concern about the state of the hospitality industry in general in Lebanon.

Once a powerhouse, he says it is now struggling.

“What worked in Lebanon could be exported outside. And we were in a position where we would say what would work and what would not work. We were trendsetters.”

Over the years, this spirit has gradually disappeared, Moudabber says, and Lebanon is no longer an “innovation incubator” in the sector.

Many contemporary Lebanese concepts are on the “copy-paste model,” he says, adding that “very few concepts in Lebanon can really claim that they will be a regional player one day, and that’s a pity.”

The regional situation has its part to play, he says, but the government’s lack of support for the sector has also been responsible for this decline in the reputation of the industry, he adds.

Lebanese concepts have tried to expand to the region before, but Moudabber thinks they have rarely reached the same levels of domestic success.

“They tried to be just another ‘authentic’ American diner, which they’re not ... But we’d be offering something new.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 05, 2012, on page 5.




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